Elizabeth Wurtzel Has Only Been To Me
Well, you’ve just got to read this deliciously hathotic middle-aged whine from the exceedingly privileged drama queen Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose hardening middle-aged face, with those perpetually self-adoring eyes, you can gaze upon above. Here she is a best-selling, 44-year-old Manhattan writer, but all she does is complain about how she’s blown her life on living selfishly for the moment and her own desires. You might think: Wow, has Elizabeth Wurtzel finally grown up? Has she finally realized there’s a price for living the way she has? What gets you to that point is this heart-rending passage about an epiphany she had in 2012:
It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.
I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can’t have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family. I have had the same friends since college, although as time has gone on, the daily nature of those relationships has changed, such that it is not daily at all. But then how many lost connections make up a life? There is my best friend from law school, too busy with her toddler; the people with whom I spent New Year’s in a Negril bungalow not so long ago, all lost to me now; every man who was the love of my life, just for today; roommates, officemates, classmates: For everyone who is near, there are others who are far gone.
She says she has “spent [her] freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude,” and:
I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal. I believe in true love and artistic integrity—the kinds of things that should be mentioned between quotation marks—as absolutely now as I did in ninth grade. But even I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table. But I can’t let go. I live in the chaos of adolescence, even wearing the same pair of 501s. As time goes by.
Horribly sad. A wasted life. I have friends who are immensely talented, kind, giving, hard-working, beloved by all who know them, the kind of people who would take a bullet for you — and who through no real fault of their own (as far as I can tell) find themselves in similar midlife personal and career crises. Wurtzel has had far, far more opportunities than they have had, and by her own stupidity, petulance, and selfishness — things she pretty much concedes in this essay — she has created this miserable life for herself.
You’re thinking by now that Elizabeth Wurtzel has written a downtown faded-hipster version of the early Eighties, one-hit wonder ballad “I’ve Never Been To Me,” in which an aged jet-setter mourns for the more meaningful, if prosaic, life she could have had if she had been willing to give up hedonistic pleasures for the promise of committed love, and children.
And then you read that poor Elizabeth considers her lifestyle as evidence of her superior philosophical and artistic integrity. She says:
I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that …
Ah. See, that’s my wife she’s talking about, and the wives of many of my friends. I don’t feel especially compelled to answer this snide remark of a drying-out husk of a woman like Elizabeth Wurtzel, but it is useful, I think, to point to this as perhaps the most vivid example of why Elizabeth Wurtzel is such a horrible, miserable person. She is incapable of really loving anyone but herself. I think of how my life works, with my wife — the same way every family I know in which the mom stays at home works — and I instantly grasp that what Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn’t know about love and marriage is a lot. I have a good career as a writer, and provide well financially for my family. Because we have been blessed in particular ways, it’s been easier to make that choice. But we made that choice for me to be the sole breadwinner as soon as we decided to start a family — and I was making a lot less money then. It’s one of the main reasons we decided to leave New York City back in 2003: we knew we couldn’t afford the number of kids we wanted to have, or the security we owed them, if we stayed in New York on my writer’s salary.
Julie said to me one night as we were walking home from dinner on Smith Street in Brooklyn, pushing our son in his stroller: “New York is your first love, and it’s so passionate, but the day finally comes when you realize this is not the one to marry.” And then she said something like, “Living in New York is like living in Disneyworld: everything is more intense than real life, and costs five times as much.”
Don’t misunderstand: we absolutely loved New York City. I cried like a baby on the day I left for good, and several times after that too. Those were some of the happiest years of our life together — we started our married life together there –and we have no regrets about them. But we knew that they would have to end someday, because our own lives had become less intense and more prosaic, and the pleasures available to us as parents were different, and frankly, more attractive. This is one of those things that’s hard to see when you’re single, or newly married without children. But for most of us, once we cross the line into parenthood, we see the world differently. That is, if we’re doing it right.
Anyway, the only way I could have the life I have, professionally and personally, is because my life is not my own: I am one half of a conjoined life. I support my wife financially; she supports me in every other way. If she weren’t here to give that support — tirelessly, faithfully, without faltering or complaint, even when I give her every reason to complain — the successful, fulfilling, meaningful career I’ve built for myself would probably fall apart. I know I personally would fall apart, because I knew what a sad, lonely, intensely anxious man I was before I married her, and that I would be again without her. Without her and our children.
As I was reading the Wurtzel essay last night, my six-year-old daughter padded into the bedroom in her flannel pajamas. “Goodnight, Daddy,” she said, and bent over the bed to kiss me.
“Goodnight sweet girl,” I said, drawing her close and kissing her forehead. “You make me so happy.”
She hid her grin behind the curls falling over her eyes, and ran back to bed.
My wife — my homeschooling, bill-paying, family-organizing, house-managing wife — makes this life possible for me. For all of us. And, I think it worth saying, by the work I do to bring money into the house, I make the good things she has and does possible for her. For all of us. If either of us were to go, it would come close to falling apart. With luck, skill, and a lot of help from our friends, it wouldn’t fall apart, but it would be deeply diminished.
Every single family I know in which the husband is the sole breadwinner works the same way. I know some who make a lot more money than I do, and I know others who make a lot less than I do. But all of us husbands and wives — maybe because we’re all serious Christians, I dunno — understand love in marriage as a mutual sacrifice. The thing is, I’d say most of the families I know in which both parents work, either by choice or necessity, see marriage in the same way. These days, given how easy and common divorce is, if you didn’t see it that way, I don’t know how in the world you’d make it.
Prostitute. What does Elizabeth Wurtzel know about prostitution? It seems to me that one who makes money, status, and power relations the measure of the integrity of love between a man and a woman is a lot closer to having a prostitute’s mindset than she may think.
Marriage and children are the ordinary means to fulfillment, but they aren’t the only ones. The people to pity are those who desperately wanted marriage, but never found it, or had it taken from them by death or divorce. But to pity or admire someone like Wurtzel? Forget it. It’s not everyone’s desire to marry or settle down with a partner, but if that’s the choice you make, then own it. Regretting that you took the wrong path is a way of taking responsibility for your own freedom. I suppose you could say that Wurtzel is taking a kind of responsibility for her choices by writing an essay in which she concedes that she’s pretty much ruined her life, but doesn’t regret it because she has been true to herself. I don’t buy it. She thinks she’s saying, “My country, right or wrong,” but, to steal a line from Chesterton, she’s really saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
To recall the shmaltzy song stylings of the lovely Charlene, the problem with Elizabeth Wurtzel is not that she’s never been to Me. The problem with Elizabeth Wurtzel is that she’s only ever been to Me — and on evidence of her writing, it’s a pretty sorry and hopeless place to be stuck in. It’s not going to end well with her, and she’s already had more chances in life to get it right than most people do. Every day offers a chance to change, to choose life, not death. But every day you spend choosing death — in her particular case, the death of imprisonment to the Self — makes it even harder to choose life, while you still have a life to choose.
On the other hand, maybe Elizabeth Wurtzel’s destiny is to serve as a cautionary tale. In that case, send a link to her essay to your teenage or college-age children. Tell them its title should be, “How To Lie To Yourself And Waste Your Life.” I’m actually serious about this.
I think he’s right about this and everything else, but that he’s a little too hard on Wurtzel. Her beliefs about herself and the world are intensely stupid, not just foolish but stupid, but she is her stupidity’s main victim — and more to the point, we don’t know why she is as she is and whether with the same temptations we wouldn’t have wound up much the same as she did. The conviction that one must satisfy the self, whatever the consequences, and no matter what the evidence that this does not work, is never very far away from any of us. One can imagine one’s own face at the top of the article, or one like it expressing one’s own particular brand of self-deception, had things worked out differently.
The reality’s hidden for her and from her by the ideas behind that stale cliche about the purity of her heart. The “pure heart” Wurtzel thinks she has heroically served and for protecting whose integrity she’s suffered — the “pure heart” of contemporary Romanticism, also known as “authenticity” and the like — is just the expression of ego and desire and want, pure only in the sense that the self’s drive to assert itself remains unmixed with caution or prudence or concern for the needs of others or submission to any external authority.
Good points. As I said in a combox remark earlier today, it is hard to reach somebody like Wurtzel, who is driven so powerfully by her emotions. Beyond the sad case of Wurtzel (side note: it’s interesting to think about the kind of home environment that produces such a basket case), we live in a culture in which emotivism reigns supreme. Every age has had its Wurtzels, but we happen to live in a time and place in which her way of thinking (“thinking”) is particularly popular.